Most Western boomtowns depended on mining, but Mondak—platted in 1903 on the border between “dry” North Dakota and “wet” Montana—was a liquor town. Its Montana saloons existed to separate booze-thirsty North Dakotans from their coin. Mondak had a hard reputation; its first recorded death was one C.H. King, who died of inebriation.
More than a dozen saloons lined the Montana side of State Street, Mondak’s major thoroughfare. Early entrepreneur Jake Seel and brother John built a one-room log saloon astride the state line—the front door on the Dakota side and the serving bar in Montana. Seel painted the state line on the floor, but once patrons had legally purchased booze on the Montana side, they could sit and drink anywhere in the saloon.
Residents built homes in North Dakota, but nearly all businesses operated in Montana. A 1919 town map shows five east-west streets and five north-south streets, each named either for a Western personality (e.g., Cushing, Sibley) or a transportation corridor (e.g., Great Northern, Missouri). The Rex Hotel, Great Northern Hotel and other boarding houses put up beer-sated visitors. Townspeople also worked at three breweries, two granaries, two lumberyards, an icehouse and two livery stables. A church sat on a hillside overlooking town. Mondak also boasted a bank, Billy Curtis’ barbershop, a general store, a pharmacy and two mercantile stores. Retired steer-wrangler Luke Sweetman owned one of the latter, along with several saloons. The post office operated out of Sweetman’s store.
The Yellowstone News, Mondak’s own newspaper, published weekly on Saturdays from 1905 until 1920. A year’s subscription cost $2.
In 1912 the community outgrew its one-room schoolhouse, so townspeople built a $10,000 two-story brick school with four large rooms, employing three teachers and a principal. A gymnasium in the basement sheltered the entire student body on frigid winter days. The school doubled as Mondak’s cultural and recreational center.
Mondak sat near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. The Great Northern Railway ran through town and across Snowden Bridge, which spanned the Missouri about two miles away. A boat landing brought waterborne business, including frequent stops by the 64-ton steam ferry The City of Mondak (reportedly Montana’s largest). Near the landing was the abandoned Fort Union trading post, a relic of the Indian fur trade that dried up in 1867; the post is now a National Historic Site [www.nps.gov/fous]. With road, rail and river traffic, Mondak flourished, reaching 350 to 400 permanent residents and scores of transients by the 1910s.
A red-light district operated between town and the river. Local resident Ralph Chase, when he was a boy, delivered newspapers and magazines to the ladies there and found them “friendly and educated.” Regardless, the brothels hosted frequent fistfights and contributed to Mondak’s rowdy reputation. Inevitably the town attracted a criminal element, including local outlaws the Pigeon-Toed Kid and Kid Mathews. The jail on Missouri Street is one of only three buildings to survive to the present.
In April 1913, during construction of the Snowden Bridge, black laborer J.C. Collins shot Sheridan County Sheriff Tom Courtney and Deputy Sheriff Dick Burmeister, who had come to arrest Collins for physically assaulting a coworker’s wife. Courtney, who died instantly, was making his first-ever arrest attempt. A citizen posse captured Collins and locked him in the jail. Later, when word spread that Burmeister had also succumbed to his wounds, an angry mob smashed in the jail door, grabbed Collins and hanged him from a telephone pole. The ugly episode spawned ugly rumors, among them that Collins’ body was encased in the cement of one of the Snowden Bridge piers.
In the early 1920s, Prohibition stopped the party at Mondak. The saloons closed, and by 1925 few residents remained. The final blow came in August 1927 when a prairie fire, reportedly started by a train carrying John Philip Sousa’s band to a performance in Glendive, razed what was left of the downtown.
Mondak’s three remaining buildings —the jail, a warehouse and a store or saloon—are on private property.
The author thanks the MonDak Heritage Center [www.mondakheritagecenter.org] in Sidney, Mont., for its assistance.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.